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behavioral problems and drug solutions: a last resort

By Dr. Michael W. Fox

A variety of psychotropic drugs have proven to be beneficial for treating people with various emotional and behavioral problems, such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorders. Veterinarians are discovering that these drugs can help in treating similar problems in dogs. These clinical findings support my contention that the inner world of dogs, their consciousness and emotionality, must be similar in many ways to ours, otherwise these psychotropic drugs would not result in similar clinical improvement in dogs as in human patients.

Veterinarians are well advised to use behavioral-modification techniques like reward training, desensitization, changing the dog's environment, and evaluating the dog-human relationships in the home before prescribing these kinds of drugs. Some have potentially harmful side effects. Then there is the ethical issue of giving drugs to dogs to help them cope with a way of life -- like being left alone (often in a crate) for many hours during the work week, to which no animal should be subject. Turning a dog into a chemically-dependent zombie is ethically untenable.

The benefits of these mind (brain-chemistry) and behavior-altering drugs to dogs are being documented in the veterinary literature. Before the advent of these new drugs, many dogs would suffer years of distress (and their owners too), or be euthanized.

Fluoxetine (Dista's Prozac) has helped many dogs suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders, including compulsive licking, pacing, tail-chasing, and self-mutilation.

Selegiline (Pfizer's Anipryl) is now being prescribed for old dogs suffering from the "old dog's disease" of disorientation and anxiety called cognitive dysfunction syndrome. 

Amitriptylene (Zeneca's Elevil) is one of several medications that can help dogs showing dominance aggression, coupled with underlying anxiety.

Buspirone (Bristol-Myers Squibb's BuSpar) and Clomipramine (Novartis' Clomicalm) have proven beneficial to dogs suffering from fear-related aggression.

One of the most common emotional disorders to afflict dogs today is separation anxiety. If behavior-modification techniques, and providing another dog as a companion or an open crate as a safe "den" do not work, the treatment with any of the above drugs, including Eli Lilly's Reconcile ( that is the same as Prozac but is beef-flavored), or with Imipramine (Novartis' Tofranil) or Alprazolam (Pharmacia and Upjohns' Xanax) can provide significant relief, emotionally or symptomatically, for the dog, which will help the distraught owners feel better as well.

I find it ethically questionable to drug a dog who is suffering from boredom and loneliness and becomes a house-wrecker. Wherever possible, dogs' basic needs should be met and their environments changed for their benefit rather than changing their brain chemistry to help them cope with and adapt to a relatively deprived existence. Is it more ethical to selectively breed them to better adapt to such conditions? Or would they then become "virtual dogs," dispirited facsimiles of the once real, that our children may never know, respect and cherish, with no remnant of the wild that we recognized in their original presence?

Many behavioral and emotional problems in dogs have a complex genesis, including the animal's genetic background and basic temperament, the dog's rearing history and experiences earlier in life, and current factors in the dog's immediate environment and family relations, including other animals as well as people in the home.

The judicious use of psychotropic drugs, with careful monitoring and individual dose-adjustments is appropriate, I believe, but only as a last resort for those conditions when behavioral counseling and modification procedures have failed. Often the dogs can be slowly weaned off these drugs and, in the process, they seem to learn to cope better with the conditions or stimuli that caused their behavioral disturbance in the first place.

The worst side-effect of some psychotropic drugs (other than dependence, liver damage and paradoxical reactions), which lead me to caution against over-prescribing, are disturbing consequences that may be hard to detect in the animal, but which humans report when on similar drugs. These may include disorientation, increased feelings of vulnerability, anxiety or depression, fatigue, loss of appetite, and disturbed sleep patterns.

Another often overlooked factor that can affect behavior is diet. Nutritionists are beginning to discover how dietary habits cannot only affect the immune system and other vital body functions, but also influence behavior, emotions, and cognitive (learning) abilities in humans. Recent work by a team of veterinarians at Tuft's University School of Veterinary Medicine, Boston, has revealed that for dogs showing territorial aggression, their aggressive behavior was lowered when they were fed a low protein diet supplemented with tryptophan (10 mg/kg per meal, twice daily). Dogs showing dominance aggression were less aggressive when fed low or high protein diets supplemented with tryptophan, compared to when they were fed a high protein diet without the extra tryptophan. These different diets had no appreciable effect on hyperactive dogs.

While a dietary approach to treating some dog behavior problems is relatively new, the health benefits of good nutrition have been long recognized. Artificial coloring agents, preservatives and other ingredients like wheat and various glutens in many manufactured foods may affect brain and behavior, so a whole-food, biologically appropriate diet may be helpful.
Many veterinarians prescribe herbal and nutraceutical supplements for companion animals with behavioral and emotional problems including Valerian, Passion flower, Hops, Lavender, Kava Kava, Chamomile, and Melantonin.

The need for companionship for a dog alone at home all day should also be considered, another compatible dog, or a cat or two being the most natural remedy, and negating the need for pysychotropic drugs to help an animal cope with loneliness and a deprived, un-stimulating environment.